Journalists under threat: The psychology of sacrifice

Over the summer, as a book I’d written about the lives of murdered journalists went to press, a crusading human rights reporter from the Russian republic of Chechnya was shot dead. I was not surprised by the details of her murder, just as the Chechen reporter was not surprised she’d become a target for execution: Like all the journalists in my book, Natalya Estemirova had known she would probably be murdered.

Estemirova lived in the Chechen capital, Grozny, working full-time to expose the atrocities committed against civilians by the Moscow-backed Chechen government. She filed reports with the human rights organization Memorial and contributed investigative articles to the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, her journalism bearing such headlines as “Thousands of Butchers At Large.” Four of Novaya’s reporters had been murdered since 2000, including Estemirova’s famous collaborator and friend, Anna Politkovskaya. Defying death threats from government militias and a personal warning from the Chechen president, on July 13, Estemirova gave an interview to the Caucasian Knot news agency about her latest exposé of killings and house burnings committed by representatives of the Chechen regime. Early on the morning of the 15th, she was forced at gunpoint into a car outside her home, shot in the heart and head and dumped beside a road 50 miles away. Three days later, Chris Chivers, a New York Times reporter for whom she’d served as a source, wrote in an obituary, “Did she see what awaited her? Her friends would say: Yes.”

In the world’s most murderous countries for reporters, such examples of unstoppable courage are not uncommon. In Latin America, South Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, many murdered journalists foresaw what awaited them, yet, like Estemirova, they continued their reporting until the bloody end. CPJ has recorded that more than 750 journalists have been killed on the job since the organization began compiling accounts of deaths in 1992. Almost three-quarters of the dead were not war correspondents caught in crossfire but local reporters and broadcasters who were targeted and murdered for their work. Nearly all the masterminds of their murders have escaped punishment.

A little over four years ago, on World Press Freedom Day, I decided to tell some of their personal stories. The CPJ had just published a report, “Marked for Death,” which listed the five countries where the most journalists had been murdered since 2000. They were, in order of most killed, the Philippines, Iraq, Colombia, Bangladesh, and Russia. I chose representative cases in these countries and set out to visit their hometowns to interview their families, colleagues and, if possible, the people who had ordered their murders. My previous reporting in regions where impunity reigned had taught me that retribution was guaranteed against local journalists who defied the rulers. I therefore had one question uppermost in my mind: What makes a local journalist stay on a story after being threatened with certain death?

I encountered a lot of unexpected events in the five countries I visited, including the murder of Politkovskaya, whom I was scheduled to interview about her slain colleagues. She was gunned down in her Moscow apartment house on October 7, 2006, while I was in the air on my way to meet her, and, as a result, she became one of my subjects for study.

As I moved from place to place, I found that each of the assassinated journalists had been very different person: Among them was an angry left-wing economist in Colombia, a self-effacing humanist in Bangladesh, an easy-going 23-year-old in Iraq, and a mother of four in the Philippines who’d been tormented by the problems her journalism had caused her children.

Despite these differences, they shared one remarkable trait: They had reached a point at which they were willing to accept death as a consequence of their reporting. To find the source of their psychology of sacrifice, I conducted a series of life investigations, not murder investigations.

What I discovered was that they had all experienced an event early in their careers that had transformed them, wedding them to the principle that the powerful should be prevented from oppressing the weak. While fallible themselves, they went to work each morning with the conviction that the calling of journalism was to defend the defenseless. The men and women they investigated believed in the opposite principle: that the weak offered opportunities for the enrichment of the powerful. These predators dominated the five countries in which the journalists lived. I think anyone can identify with the deadly risks the journalists took if one recognizes that they were standing up for their homes. They did not arrive from somewhere else to seek adventure in their corrupt and violent lands. They lived where they died, and they tried to defend the people where they lived.

Since I began my research, Somalia and Sri Lanka have been elevated to the list of countries that are among the most deadly for journalists. That list is always changing, but the motives of the killers, and the ideals of the journalists, remain the same. Last January, a Sri Lankan newspaper editor named Lasantha Wickramatunga was shot to death near a military base in Colombo. In the days leading up to his murder, his phone was filled with messages that promised assassination if he continued exposing the government’s crimes against minorities and its press freedom abuses. As usual, Wickramatunga ignored the threats and drove off to work–right into the sites of a hit squad. Three days later his newspaper published his last article, “And Then They Came for Me.” The article condemned the murders of Sri Lankan journalists and then foretold his own murder. It also pointed to the likely masterminds. “When finally I am killed,” he wrote, “it will be the government that kills me.”

There are probably thousands of journalists at work today who are no less courageous than the fallen. Courage is not a quality we can assign only to those who have not survived their pursuit of a story. I met many reporters in the countries I visited who’d escaped murder only by dint of good luck and quick reflexes. They are living examples of the values for which their colleagues have died. They awake each morning knowing that at any moment they too could be killed for holding the powerful and corrupt accountable. All of them could easily have written the words Estemirova chose to conclude an article that marked the first anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder: “It is up to us to continue her work.”

We should think of those words the next time we hear about journalists who have been murdered in faraway places. Often enough, they will have followed in the footsteps of colleagues who pressed on, knowing the fate that awaited them. They refused to bow to threats, wrote their last exposé, and would have written their next had not the expected assassin arrived to stop them.

Terry Gould is the author of Marked for Death: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places. The book recently won the Tara Singh Hayer Award, named in honor of a murdered journalist and sponsored by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. Click here for an excerpt.